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Year-round Beach Destination

This has been a tough week. Five drownings (4 beach one bay), two of them children, and only three have been recovered. My staff and our partners in Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network have done an admiral job in very trying circumstances.  

One thing that helped was that the Beach Patrol year-round staff has been increased recently by four. That doesn’t sound like much, but those few extra bodies allowed us to assign a truck to comb the west end or a jet ski to check the rocks along the south jetty or the groins along the seawall without compromising normal operations.  

These incidents really highlight the fact that tourism is increasing during the “off peak” season from September till May. The water is warmer more of the year so they’re going to the beach and swimming. There was a time when we only really had significant amounts of swimmers on the weekends until the middle of October. Those days are long gone, and we often have large crowds on the beach and in the water into December and starting in February.  

We have, like it or not, become a year-round beach destination. This is great for the economy, provided we are able to take care of these additional visitors for these new “shoulder season” times that have become so busy. Additional staff for the lifeguards will be needed to cover more of the year and to cover more and more beaches, like the addition to Babe’s beach coming soon. We also have to consider that the day tripper’s use of the west end beaches has increased dramatically and we don’t receive much for the services we need to provide out there for security, lifesaving, beach cleaning, etc. 

New beaches are good, and experts say for each dollar we put on the beach we get seven in return. Great for tourism and for us as residents since that additional hotel tax fuels our tourist services and the additional sales tax keeps our taxes low. So more people can afford to live here and the city can provide the types of amenities needed to attract and keep them. 

For us on Beach Patrol, the key issues are staffing and infrastructure. Staffing needs are obvious to many people when they see the size of the crowds and the demands that puts on all the emergency services. But infrastructure is a major concern. We will eventually need some type of substation on the west end, hopefully at a park that captures revenue. I was there when they built the Stewart Beach Pavilion in ’84. It housed us as we grew from a staff of 17 to 145 so we could cover new beaches and increased tourism. It was supposed to last 25 years. It’s way past time to replace it for something that generates more revenue, is a landmark that makes Galveston proud of its flagship beach, and can adequately house a state-of-the-art lifeguard service.  

Hurricane Michael

Fortunately we dodged the Hurricane Michael bullet, but that was definitely a lesson to not let our guard down.

Nevertheless we saw some pretty decent coastal flooding on Tuesday into Wednesday. My office looks out over the Stewart Beach parking lot and it was surreal to watch it when the storm surge moved in. We were still a couple of hours from high tide and over the course of 15 or 20 minutes the entire parking lot went from dry to under a foot of water. It was like watching a flash flood as rivers started forming and eventually it ended up looking like a small lake.

Fortunately the Park Board Coastal Zone Management team had already started moving our lifeguard towers for the end of the season or we could have had some damage. They also scrambled to get the hundreds of trash cans they provide off the beach and out of the flooding.

Wednesday morning I got up early and paddled out at first light with another lifeguard. It was like a dream as we got to the outside break and saw wave after wave rolling in. They were long and clean and thick since the storm pushed them across hundreds of miles of gulf before they arrived. As the sun just popped up over the horizon I dropped into a head high freight train ride. The sun burned an orange swath in the wall of the wave as the offshore wind blew neon spray back. It felt like walking through the screen into one of the surf movies that my friends and I used to watch when we were in high school.

The waves stayed throughout the day, driven by the pulse sent out from Hurricane Michael. Hundreds of surfers lined the seawall, many of whom looked like they hadn’t been in the water for a long time. This is one of the difficult things for our guards. Everyone wants to ride the storm waves! So we get really good surfers who are out there all the time, novice surfers who are just starting to paddle out past the inside break, and “Al Bundy” surfers who have not, shall we say, kept themselves in peak condition. The guards have to have a practiced eye to pick out those who shouldn’t be out there and leave the others to enjoy their passion. If we or someone else doesn’t intervene, someone gets dragged across the rock groins by a rip current or a breaking wave. Others who are not tuned into the rules may try to surf close to the fishing piers, where city ordinance says they have to maintain a 300 foot distance. So the lifeguards end up being not just rescuers, prevention specialists, and enforcers; but also councilors and conflict mediators.

And at the end of the day, when the orange swell is colored by sunset instead of sunrise, the safety crew jumped in to enjoy a piece of what everyone else got while they were working.

Bitter Sweet

We’re perched on the brink. When the seasons change it all happens pretty quickly in Galveston. Suddenly the beach water is in the low 70s, you’re working to stay warm instead of cool, and the days are much shorter.

This weekend will be the last one for the seasonal employees and tower lifeguards to work. The hardworking Park Board Coastal Zone Management Team will be picking up the towers next week.

It’s a kind of “bitter sweet” feeling. After a long season of hard work it’s a relief for the guards to get out of the “thunder dome”, but they instantly start missing the beach, the work, and the camaraderie. I remember how when I’d finish the season as a tower guard and go to school or wherever, I’d have a sort of let down that bordered on depression. The work was so intense, but so fulfilling. It’s almost like I physically missed the adrenaline of working rescues and medical calls. I also missed all the physical activity and just being on the beach all day every day.

Our fulltime staff is pushing on though. They’ll be patrolling the beaches in mobile vehicles and will continue to do so throughout the entire year, thanks to the four extra positions we’ve been given. They’ll also continue to respond to 911 calls 24 hrs a day throughout the winter.  In addition we also start off season maintenance duties next week, including replacing signage and rebuilding damaged towers. Other duties include website redesign, policy and procedure manual update, maintenance of rescue boards and other equipment, ordering supplies etc. And this year because we have these new positions we’ll be able to hit many more school groups during more of the year. Our target is 20,000 kids, but I feel pretty certain we can get above that. We’ll also be spending a lot of time training the new staff as tourism ambassadors, swift water rescue technicians, dispatchers, personal water craft rescuers, and more. Some of them are in the process of getting EMTs so they’ll have more than we throw at them. The slower months always go fast, and first thing we know we’re back out in force guarding.

But we’re not done yet. October and November are still pretty warm and with lots of people, particularly on the weekends. Remember if you and your family are out there on the beach that, while we’re doing the best we can out of rescue trucks, there are no stationed lifeguards. So be extra careful. If you need anything, we’re part of the 911 system and can be there quickly day or night.

We now enter the absolute best time of the year. Warm weather, gorgeous water, and low crowds make it the perfect time to be on the beach. There are still plenty of beautiful days to come, so hopefully you’ll find time to get out there to enjoy it in the way you love most.

See you on the beach or in the water!

Dust Devil

Lifeguard 3 Michael Lucero was working the early shift at Stewart Beach last Sunday. It was looking to be a slow day with rain in the Houston area and not many people moving around on the beachfront yet. He watched over maybe 50 people on the beach, with 10 or so in the water.

Since Lucero came to work with us I’ve always been impressed with how attentive and responsive he is. He’s always been really good about being proactive when he works in the tower. He trains hard and regularly, and he is consistently very nice and patient with our beach goers. He took the initiative to train as a dispatcher and this summer he did just as good a job coordinating 32 lifeguard towers, 7 rescue trucks, and a couple of mobile units (UTVs) simultaneously.

He did not disappoint when one of the more unexpected things possible happened Sunday. He came on the radio calmly letting his area supervisor know that a funnel cloud was developing behind his tower to the north. He then just as calmly called in that the funnel cloud had touched down in the parking lot of Stewart Beach and that he was going to move people out of the way.

We have dust devils all the time in the late summer. Usually they’re just strong enough to blow sand in people’s eyes and might uproot a couple of umbrellas. This wasn’t that.

When I got on site I could see the swirly tracks in the sand and it looked like the thing had barreled through with a diameter of about 15 yards. Witnesses reported that, as it came through the parking lot, about 10 of those heavy blue beach trashcans were swirling in the air maybe 30 feet off the ground. It blasted through the umbrella line and reportedly the umbrellas were converted to spear like projectiles while about 20 or so spun around and around.

These same witnesses all said basically the same thing. Before they knew they were in danger, Lucero first cleared the people in the water, and then moved the people on the sand out of harm’s way firmly and efficiently. When it was all over and he surmised that there were no injuries he stepped back up into his tower, called “Tower 6 back on location.” and resumed his duties of overseeing the public.

Obviously this could have gone a whole different way. But Michael was the perfect example of how we want our lifeguards to respond to emergencies. If they’re alert and proactive they can prevent injuries or worse before people even realize they’re in danger. He was quick in his thinking and in his actions without a lot of fuss. And it paid off!

As we look at the next few weeks and associated storm potential, let’s try to follow Lucero’s lead. Make sure you’re ahead of the game if the time comes to act. If officials put out warnings that recommend evacuation do so early and efficiently. And stay safe!

Personal Water Crafts

This has been one crazy summer. We’re in August and there are still tons of people moving around, the water has been choppy to rough with some pretty strong rip currents, and our call volume has been equivalent to days in May or June. Last weekend we moved a couple thousand people away from rip currents, made a number of rescues, responded to several “possible drowning” calls and made the scene of a few boaters in distress. Our lifeguards have been knocking it out of the park and have both prevented and responded to hundreds of thousands of accidents so far this season. They have few tools to help them, most of this work is done with a simple rescue tube and set of fins. For some of the weird stuff that happens farther off shore or in the bay, we go to what has become a vital piece of equipment in recent history for any state of the art lifeguard service- the Personal Water Craft (PWC).
A PWC is a pretty unique vehicle. Because they use a jet drive to funnel water from the bottom of the craft and shoot it out of the back, they have some real advantages compared to a powerboat. They can run in really shallow water because there’s no prop. They also don’t have the danger inherent in a propeller churning when working or playing near the power source.
The Galveston Beach Patrol was the first lifeguard service in the country, and probably the world, to use the PWC as a rescue device back in 1984. We were given two Yamaha Wave Runners for some kind of promotional deal. We used them for patrolling and shepherding swimmers closer to shore but not so much for rescue. We hosted a meeting for the United States Lifesaving Association that year and let everyone try them out. The next year the Hawaiians figured out that you could attach a rescue sled on the back to pick up victims, and history was made. My buddy Brian Keaulana is justifiably credited with being the pioneer of PWC rescue. He and his team used one to make a crazy rescue in a cave on the north shore of Oahu that was videotaped and helped promote the effectiveness of the PWC as a rescue device all over the world.
Nowadays beach guards can drop a PWC in the water almost anywhere and be to a victim within seconds. We use a rescue sled to bring the victims in or use it as a working platform in the water. We can do anything on that sled from CPR to spinal immobilization. We have them placed all over the island during the day for quick access and every Supervisor is a certified rescue operator.
We still make the vast majority of surf rescues the old fashion way- swimming with a rescue tube and fins, or paddling out on a rescue board. But in many ways the PWC revolutionized longer distance surf rescue, and for better or worse, we’ve all grown very dependent on them.

Jetty Jump

The young woman crouched down on the slippery surface of the rocks. Her heart beat rapidly as she watched the guy in front of her navigate down the steep part. She tried to ignore the cuts on the top of her foot from the last try. “This time I’ll get it right”, she thought to herself determinedly. He jumped and landed with his rescue tube held out in front of him. “NO!” shouted the instructor. “Keep that buoy tight to your body so you hit like a pancake…And remember head up and buoy covering all your important parts when you hit the water!”
When her turn came she walked forward carefully, making sure her bare feet avoided the green patches of algae. The small barnacles were like sandpaper that gave her feet good purchase. As long as she didn’t twist them or step on the parts with big barnacles, she’d have minimal cuts the next day. At least that’s what her instructor told her.
As she came to the steep part she stopped, rehearsing everything her instructor told her. She made sure there was no slack in the rope connecting to her rescue tube and that the heavy buckle was not on the end near her face. She kept her center of gravity low, but made sure she didn’t rest her butt or her rescue tube on the rocks so a passing wave would pass under her instead of sweeping her off her feet and across the barnacle ridden rocks. Most importantly, she reminded herself to watch the water.
As a gap between the sets of waves approached the instructor said, “Now. Ease down. Watch the water”. As she lowered herself down she stood up straight briefly. “FOCUS!” her instructor shouted. “Three point stance, butt down, but not all the way on the rocks” she added. The young woman corrected herself and got in position. She watched the water intently, waiting.
“Here it comes!” shouted the instructor. A large set of waves was rolling in. It was too late to go back up to the relative safety of high ground. The woman’s throat felt dry and she momentarily felt nauseous.
“I can do this”, she said to herself. She focused on the first wave. Time slowed down and her vision narrowed. She couldn’t hear anything. As the wave neared she jumped. She held the buoy to her chest tightly and arched her back as she floated above the water for what seemed like an eternity.
BOOM! She landed on the crest and slid off the back. Time returned to normal as she rolled sideways and put on her fins in one smooth motion. She took a couple of careful strokes and realized she hadn’t hit anything. She surfaced and turned around. Her instructor had a big smile on her face and she shouted, “Perfect! 3 more…”
The woman smiled to herself as she used the rip current to swim around the jetty. When the time came to do it for real, she’d be ready.

61 Rescue

Early on Saturday morning Supervisor Nikki Harclerode was putting the condition flags up at the stations on the seawall. She was placing the flag in the holder at 61st street. She was the only lifeguard out there as even the “A” shift guards were still out doing their pre-work training session. Nikki is a very experienced lifeguard who has worked for us for a number of years. She also is extremely focused and rarely lets anything fall between the cracks. On top of that she’s one of the better athletes in a group full of talent and has several national titles in Lifesaving Sport under her belt.
On this particular morning, something didn’t feel right. In her peripheral vision she noticed three heads where they shouldn’t be near the rocks. She called for backup and went in. A couple of us who were working and training jumped in our trucks at Stewart Beach and headed her way. We respond with a minimum of the same number of guards as people in distress if possible. It’s hard enough dealing with one panicked person in the water, much less three. Someone much smaller can overpower you when they’re afraid and it doesn’t take much to incapacitate you by a kick to the wrong area, a poke to your throat, or simply by accidently choking on water in the heat of struggling with a victim.
As we raced to help her, knowing that we most likely wouldn’t make it in time to help with the actual rescue, time was distorting from Nikki’s perspective. She ran down the rocks and her perception expanded. She saw three teenagers actively struggling about ¾ of the way out to the end of the rock groin. A woman was screaming and running into the water to her side. Nikki surmised this was the mother of at least one of the victims. Without breaking stride, Nikki yelled for the mom to stay where she was and told her she’d take care of them. The mom teetered on the edge of the no swimming area but reluctantly stayed put. This allowed Nikki to focus fully on the rescue.
Nikki high stepped through the shallow water, then began diving repeatedly through waist deep water dolphin style. She took a final dive, rolled over and put on her fins. Trailing her rescue tube she took a few strokes and then looked up. All three heads were still afloat. She yelled for them to stay away from the rocks and that she’d be there soon. She arrived a few seconds later to find they didn’t heed her advice and were banging around on the rocks trying to climb up. She came up behind the first and pushed him up then did the same for the second. The third victim was starting to go under and she struggled briefly with her before shoving her up on the rocks with the others. They were floundering but she climbed up and pushed them all up to dry rocks. Aside from cuts they were fine.

Junior Guard

A group of kids stand in a row in front of their rescue boards along the shoreline wearing yellow tank jerseys and carrying their rescue tubes on one hand. Some of them are vibrating slightly as they get ready to go into action. They then grab their boards and stand on the line. The instructor yells for them to start and they spring for the water. As they get into shallows they bunny hop and then a few hop on their knees and power through the inside break while the rest drop to their bellies. Sports day for the Junior Guards!
The Beach Patrol Junior Lifeguard Day Camp is well structured and economically priced. We offer a number of scholarships as well. We started it in the late 80’s to be a feeder program for lifeguards.
Participants undergo one and a half hours of classroom instruction in each four-hour day, studying topics as diverse as beach lifeguard principles, first aid, CPR, marine biology and ecology, and sports fitness topics.
Junior Guards are exposed to a wide range of activities. They learn about the lifeguards workday by assisting real lifeguards as they perform their regular duties. They play games that are relevant to the lecture and classroom topics. And they participate in several educational field trips.
Our objectives are to show the participants the values of mental and physical discipline and to teach them to respect themselves, others, authority, and the natural environment. Our primary purpose is to provide a fun, safe place for youths to grow and learn about themselves and the diverse environments of the Texas Gulf Coast. Our hope is that many of them will become the lifeguards of the future.
The Junior Life Guard Program starts in June and continues for six weeks. Sessions are held three times a week with Fridays as an optional sports training day. “Sports day” will offer more intensive physical training and Lifeguard Sport competition practice. Most of our full time staff and about 40 percent of our total staff were Junior Guards.
Today at Stewart Beach is the final day of the program. The guards have “Beachfest” from 8am to 2pm. They’ll have friendly competitions, food, and awards and time to socialize and share memories with all their beach friends, parents, supporters, and the lifeguard staff.
You are welcome to come hang out and see what these amazing guards of the future can do!

San Luis Pass

At the San Luis Pass, the tide change flows through a gap only about a mile across. It bottlenecks and accelerates the tidal current tremendously. So roughly every 6 hours it changes directions and builds up to full strength. The entire pass is very dangerous, but there are two spots that catch the brunt of the current and are exceptionally so. On the Brazoria side, just on the north side of the bridge there is a little beach park. A point of sand extends into the pass, maybe 200 yards north of the bridge, that diverts the current, which results in a deep area right were the current pulls away from shore. On the Galveston side, the worst part is on the south side, where the beach makes the turn into the channel. There’s a point there where the current runs very close to shore, causing unbelievably strong currents and deep, deep areas. All that current and bottom change is a recipe for death for swimmers, but it makes for phenomenal fishing.
On the weekends in the summer we have a designated “San Luis Pass Patrol” who has the tough job of patrolling the Galveston side of the pass, keeping people out of the water where we’ve posted signs. Since we started the program, drowning deaths have dropped dramatically in that area.
One of our guards who worked out there last weekend was telling me an all too familiar story. He was at that dangerous point, trying to move some people wade fishing. He asked one man to stay out of the water and fish from the shoreline instead. He gave the usual information- “This is a really dangerous area because…. we’ve had a number of drownings in this exact location because….There’s a city ordinance that prohibits being in the water here….Fishing is fine but can you cast from the dry sand?…”. The man refused repeatedly saying basically that, “I’m a BOI…I’ve fished out here for years before the law was in place.. You get [insert important Galvestonian] out here to tell me …..Even though it’s dangerous for them it’s not dangerous for me because….”
This is a collective issue in our society. It’s like the guy that I asked to put his dog on a leash on a busy holiday at Stewart Beach. His response was, “But this is the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet.” That could be true, and the dog was really cute, but what about the rabid beast nearby? The fisherman may know what he’s doing. The dog may actually be on a “verbal leash”. But if we make exceptions for “special cases” where does it end?
If we each think that we can do what works best for us at the time- text while driving, park in the red zone, cut the line, drive where others can’t, swim in the rip current, or ignore any of the rules in place for our collective good and safety, where does that leave everyone else? Where does that leave our society?

Big Crowds

The Beach Patrol has had a rough season so far. Much of this has been covered in the news and I’ll cover some of this in a future column. But last weekend we saw what is probably the busiest weekend we’ve had in a few years. Many have attributed this to the news stories that happened during and after Memorial Weekend. Others say it’s because we had such a cold spring and everyone was chomping at the bit to get out to the beach. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the combination of crowds and rough weather stretched us to our absolute limits.
At one point of the day we had 4 major calls going on simultaneously including two “possible drowning” calls, a boating emergency, and a CPR in progress call. Threaded through all the big calls was a continual backdrop of lost children (35 or so each day), minor medical calls, swimmers being moved from danger, calls for assistance because people wouldn’t follow lifeguards’ direction, trash can fires, disputes, complaints about music/parking/other people, dogs off their leashes, and a million other things. I was so incredibly proud of how hard our staff worked to take care of their respective parts of the 32 miles of coast line.
The water was no longer blue and clear, although it was still a nice sandy green. But lots of people were asking why we didn’t make the water more blue. I still think some people don’t realize the beach isn’t a water park! But it did get me to thinking about water color and clarity.
There are lots of theories about this but what I’ve seen over the years is that the water follows two basic rules. The first is very obvious. If there are waves the sand gets churned up in the water. So it’s a little less clear than it would be without the wave energy in the water.
The other, and more significant rule, is that if the wind blows from the southwest or west, the current comes from down the coast (from west to east). When that happens, the water gets more brown in color and less clear. There is a very simple reason for that. Just below us the Brazos River empties into the Gulf. The Brazos River is very silty and brown. When it empties into the gulf and the current pushes it up to Galveston.
If the water comes from above us, with a wind from an easterly direction, the water defaults to its normal color of green or even blue. If there is not much surf activity for a couple of days the silt settles out of it and it can get very clear. This happens about half the time, but is typical of the second half of the summer.
So, over Memorial Weekend, with big crowds, media coverage, and beautiful clear water our local secret got out and people know it can get clear and beautiful. I hope they forget before we can’t afford to live here anymore!